Why It Still Sucks To Get High in the Arab World's Biggest City

Egypt has been trying to eliminate drug use since the medieval era. But for just as long, people in Cairo have been finding ways around the clampdowns.
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The pyramids of Giza behind houses in Cairo. Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)
A series reporting on the world's most extreme – and idiosyncratic – drug scenes.

The sun is setting and a group of young men and teenagers, some no older than 16, loiter outside a red brick building in Giza, part of the greater megapolis that is Egypt's capital Cairo. Every now and then, customers walk by to be discreetly handed bags of opium, tramadol pills, or "fingers" of hash from a cigarette box.

Every evening in this neighbourhood in this city of 25 million people, where millennia-old monuments stand alongside the crumbling concrete jungle of modernity, “Adel,” whose name has been changed to protect his identity due to fear of arrest, and his friends sell drugs. 

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Unlike some drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro, most dealers in Cairo don't have the funds or firepower to keep lawmen away, so when patrol cars arrive, they drop what they have and scatter. As well as the law, Adel’s careful not to draw too much attention from local residents.

“They don’t accept you selling in front of their house,” he said. “If they catch you selling, they beat your ass!”

Certain things haven’t changed for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians were among the first to experience the narcotic bliss of opium. But, despite strict crackdowns on getting high in Egypt, a unique underground drug scene is thriving in Cairo. Here there is a taste for black market opioids and tranquillisers, hash and bango (the local name for weed), a new breed of synthetic drugs, and the same locally-harvested opium that has been around for thousands of years.

“Saeed,” a business graduate and salesman in his mid-30s from Cairo, who does not want to give his real name for fear of arrest and prison time, enjoys indulging in opium.

“You open the plastic bag, take a piece into your mouth and place it under your tongue or next to your gums,” he explained to VICE World News. “Then within an hour you will feel the warmth. It’s very nice with some tea.”

Unlike other opium cultures such as Iran and in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region, rather than smoking it out of a pipe, Egyptians prefer to suck it.

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“From a pipe?! Like President Sadat!” said Saeed, referring to the popular rumour that Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s leader from 1970 until his assassination in 1981, kept something other than tobacco in his iconic pipe. “He always used to smoke hash and opium from a pipe. Back then, every household in Egypt had some hash. It was practically legal then.”

In the past three years, there’s been a renewed clampdown on the capital’s drug culture. Fearful of society being corrupted from within by drug addiction, civil servants are now subjected to random drug tests, penalties for being caught with drugs are increasingly harsh. There are currently 11 people on death row for drug offences. Large quantities of cannabis for distribution can earn you a life sentence, which translates to 25 years in prison. Anything over ten kilos also makes you ineligible for a presidential pardon, as does any amount of heroin. In 2017, a British woman was handed three years in prison after trying to take 290 tramadol pills to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada.

In April, Egypt and Liverpool football star Mo Salah starred in a government anti-drugs campaign appealing for young people to avoid drugs and warning Nile fishermen of the perils of addiction. In June, an op-ed in Egypt’s biggest newspaper blamed the notorious Mansoura University murder, in which a young woman was stabbed to death on film by her stalker, and general societal breakdown, on the wide proliferation of drugs. The author referred to initial reports the killer was addicted to Strox, a synthetic cannabinoid blamed for madness, aggression and fatal overdoses, although experts have explained that the killer’s actions were not consistent with the effects of Strox, but rather a pathological obsession with the victim.

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Egypt fought the original war on drugs. Before Richard Nixon, Harry Anslinger – an early proponent of the war on drugs – and even the Opium Wars of the 19th century, Cairo’s medieval rulers reportedly ordered cannabis fields razed to the ground and hashish-takers’ teeth pulled out. Later, in the 1920s, the Egyptian delegation to the League of Nations requested that the herb be put on the list of most dangerous narcotics. The Egyptian authorities still take a dim view of unsanctioned states of consciousness. 

“Of everything, I love tramadol the most, because it’s euphoric, like ecstasy but without the extreme stimulation,” said Saeed, the salesman in Cairo. Tramadol, a synthetic opioid pill, is a heavily controlled drug in Egypt and is most commonly bought illegally. 

“It’s such a soft, calm high: you can sleep on it, you can hang out with your friends, or watch TV at home; it’s all equally pleasant, a distinct change of mood for the better. You won’t have this sensation with other substances. And for sex, of course, because you can go longer. But tramadol can also make you feel sick as any other [opioid] drug.” 

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A stray cat relaxes on the seat of a motorbike in a Cairo back street. Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images.

Cairo’s illicit drug scene is not just restricted to young people or particular neighbourhoods, it’s an overground thing too. 

In Cairo, tramadol is taken by manual workers to stay awake during long shifts. A study of 900 blue-collar workers working in the mid Nile delta region around Cairo found that nine in ten builders, half of bus drivers and a quarter of textile workers regularly took tramadol. They told researchers they took the opioid as a way of lifting their mood or relieving pain relief during heavy or long work shifts. 

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Out of 500 random patients screened for illicit drugs before they underwent surgery at a hospital in Cairo, 14 percent tested positive, with more than one in ten having cannabis and one in 20 having tramadol in their system.

After being reclassified as a controlled substance in Egypt in 2009, tramadol was pushed underground and cheap pills from factories in China and India flooded the black market in the aftermath of the revolution in 2011, smuggled through seaports such as Alexandria. 

By 2016, authorities were finding five times the number of tablets they did five years previously. Chaos in neighbouring Libya, meanwhile, opened another smuggling route from the west for tramadol, as well as Moroccan hash and to a lesser degree, cocaine. The latter is sometimes moved onwards to Israel, where Israeli troops have spotted smugglers tossing bricks of the white stuff over the border fence.

More synthetic drugs cooked by chemists are appearing on Cairo’s drug scene. Egyptian media reports that crystal meth, known on the streets here as “ice”, or as one newspaper calls it, “El Chapo”, is becoming increasingly available, both locally-produced in secret labs and imported from abroad, while the speedy stimulant Captagon is smuggled into the city from Syria and Lebanon. And in 2019, the government updated its drug laws to include the synthetic cannabinoids Strox and Voodoo.

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Despite heavy penalties for those convicted of drug offences, police in Cairo have been known to take bribes. “The first time I went to buy hash by myself, I got caught,” recalled “Samy,” a tall, smiley office worker in his 30s whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I was with my friend from university, and we must have walked about 20 metres when two cops stopped us. 

“One of them reached in my pocket - and I still can’t believe it because my jeans were so tight, but his fingers were like magnets. ‘This is hashish!’ I told him I never tried it before, this is my first time…and this could be very bad for us because if the university knew about it, the best that could happen is we would be suspended for a year. But as they were leading us away, one of them whispered in my ear: ‘I will let you go, but you have to give my friend something.’ So we ended up giving them around 1,000 Egyptian pounds (£40), and they gave us the whole speech like ‘don’t let us see you here again’, and put the hashish in their pockets.”

Samy says smoking weed is his “favourite sport” and he enjoys sparking up a joint when he’s driving in his car

“Here, the local weed is called bango,” he said. “But the weed here, it's a lot of how you find in a lemon - seedy, you know? So most people here prefer hash from Morocco. Also it's easier to roll a joint because with weed it's like fatteh [an Egyptian dish], falling all over the place, but with hash you just put it in a cigarette. But this hash isn't from around here. I'm telling you, don't ask for anything here. They’ll sell you crap mixed with chemicals that’s like smoking sand.”

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Weed grown in Sinai. Photo: Obtained by VICE World News.

Most of Cairo’s weed is grown in the Sinai Peninsula and the Upper Nile in southern Egypt, nearer to Sudan. There are a few varieties of hash: in Cairo, the locally-produced stuff is considered low quality and mixed with additives, so many prefer the pricier Moroccan imports. There's also hash from the Upper Nile which looks very different: very black and oily, unlike the Moroccan hash.

While opium poppies were cultivated on the banks of the River Nile in 1300 BC, since the 1990s they have been grown by Bedouin nomads on the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai is like Egypt’s own mini-Afghanistan: a rugged, rocky and underdeveloped region, with a reputation for lawlessness and heavily-militarised against an ongoing ISIS insurgency. As a drop in tourism and Egypt’s financial woes have killed job prospects, Bedouins increasingly turned to harvesting bango and opium for a living. Unlike Afghanistan, however, it’s mainly for home consumption and not refined into heroin, which is still largely imported. Both the police and military have taken part in counternarcotics operations in the Sinai. In a series of operations last year, troops claimed to destroy 842 bango plantations and 1,114 poppy fields. 

“We know it’s wrong,” said Saeed, who stopped for prayers mid-way through our interview, “but we have to live, you know?” 

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